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Social Studies

Prince's Control Issues

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 11/14/2007

Before we begin, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I've had a little beef with Prince for the past few years anyway. When I first got one of them iPods that all the kids were talking about, I dutifully loaded all of my Prince CDs onto the thing and, lo and behold, when I get to Lovesexy, the disc was formatted in such a way that it didn't show the track names; it just had them all under one word, "No." Now, Prince fans know that this is because some of his early CDs had the whole album under one track listing to force you to listen to the whole thing. The bad part is that, until I tried to load the album, I had forgotten about this tic, because I do tend to listen to Prince albums from beginning to end. But the Lovesexy thing was the first thing I thought about when I read about Prince and the web sites, because, well, I've thought for years that he was huge control freak to the point where he comes off as a dick.

For the past few months, Prince has been engaging in warfare with his fans. A couple of months ago, his lawyers sent a cease and desist order to YouTube asking the site to stop playing both his music videos as well as live footage. And I can kinda understand that. Prince wants to control his image and music, and you can't begrudge that. But last week, the artist approached some fan web sites and threatened to sue them if they didn't remove images from their sites, images that include stuff as seemingly innocuous as tattoos and even vanity license plates. Now, that's just crazy and, in my opinion as a music fan in general and a Prince fan specifically, a way of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Look, being an artist of the caliber of Prince means having fans who almost have to engage in this kind of behavior. I mean, have you ever talked to a Beatles guy or a Miles Davis guy? When a musician makes art that is so pure and so emotional and so real, when you are a fan, sometimes, it's not just enough to wait every couple of years and buy their music. When a fan truly loves someone, they find all kinds of ways to express that love, and that love often comes as a form of activism that brings in new fans.

And I know that Prince is definitely one of those musicians who elicits this kind of reaction from his flock because I've watched it happen. I just referred to myself as a Prince fan, but, honestly, I did that because none of my real Prince fan friends are in the room. For instance, I'm thinking about a dude who, when I was a high-school freshman, took me and my friend under his wing and introduced us to the music of Prince subsidiary groups like Vanity 6, Brownmark, the Family, and the Time; explained to us the purple connection to artists like Alexander O'Neal; and, gloriously, made us tapes of all of the B-sides and rarities he had collected over the years. I remember going to a clandestine meeting in Georgetown to get a crisp copy of the then-Holy Grail of Prince artifacts, The Black Album. And I remember coming thiiiis close to getting into the second fistfight of my life when some dudes tried to cut in front of us in line for Prince tickets after a group of us had spent the night outside of the box office.

It's the second remembrance that particularly rings true in this context. Until Prince released The Hits/The B-Sides box set in 1993, I owned a pretty good amount of what was, basically, bootleg material. That box is the first time I purchased a legal copy of classic, hard-to-find cuts like "She's Always in My Hair," "Another Lonely Christmas," and my absolute favorite Prince song of all time, "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore." I mean, I think that Sign o' the Times is the best album that Prince ever made, but it was that cassette tape I got as a freshman that made me into a true fan. I would study those B-sides like math, listening to the layering of voices or drum programming until I had dissected and appreciated the output to its most minute level. That black Maxell 90-minute tape was one of my most prized possessions for almost a decade and made me a true Prince acolyte, but, if it were up to Prince, I don't know if I would have ever owned it. And that would have been a shame.

Now, I already hear the Prince apologists claiming that it's not Prince who's bringing the heat to these web sites, but his lawyers. Well, maybe it is, but I'd be much more inclined to believe that if I didn't own a Lovesexy CD that Prince has forced me to listen to on his terms.

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